Category Archives: Dashiell Hammett

These Days There’s a Million Ways to be Pulled and Torn, to be Misdirected*

Real life illusionists such as Penn and Teller (yes, that’s the duo in the ‘photo), and fictional ones such as Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto know something very important. People find it hard to pay attention to a lot of things at the same time. So, if you focus your audience’s attention on one thing, they’re less likely to notice something else you may be doing. It’s called misdirection, and these people are experts at it.

Misdirection is an important part of crime fiction, too. Authors use it all the time. In fact, there’s probably a book’s worth of commentary on the way crime writers manipulate readers’ attention. So do fictional characters. After all, if you’re a fictional murderer, it suits you very well if everyone’s paying attention to something else, so that you can get away with your crime.

Misdirection is a part of many of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories. I’ll just give one example. Christie fans will know there are plenty of others. In Death in the Clouds, a group of people boards a plane for a flight from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. Just before the flight lands, one of the stewards goes around to the different passengers to give them their meal bills. That’s when he discovers that Madame Giselle is dead. At first, it looks as though she’s had a serious allergic reaction to a wasp sting (and there is a wasp on the plane). But Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, notices some things that suggest she was deliberately poisoned. And so it proves to be. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which passenger is the killer. And it turns out that the murderer used misdirection quite effectively to carry out the crime.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. As the story begins, he is distraught over the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie’, who was killed six months earlier in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes decides to find and kill the man who murdered his son and sets out to learn who that person was. After a time, he establishes that the driver of the car is a man named George Rattery. So, he contrives an introduction by starting a romance with Rattery’s sister, and soon gets to know Rattery. He’s decided to kill Rattery by drowning him during a sailing trip. The only problem is that Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, so he knows Cairnes’ plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, the police will know who is responsible. Cairnes counters with the threat that if the police read the diary, they will also know that Rattery killed Martie. With the two men at a stalemate, they return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts PI and poet Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help. He knows he’ll be suspected of murder, but he says he’s innocent. After all, he claims, why would he plan to poison a victim after already having planned to drown him? What’s more, there turn out to be several other possibilities when it comes to suspects. In the end, Strangeways finds that the killer has used misdirection to keep from being caught.

Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces her sleuth, Amelia Peabody. In the novel, Miss Peabody decides to take a tour of the Middle East. When her companion falls ill and can’t join her, she fears she’ll have to cancel her trip (this story takes place in the days before it was considered appropriate for ‘proper ladies’ to travel alone). Her problems seem to be solved when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. It turns out that Miss Barton-Forbes has been abandoned by her lover, and now has to make her way in the world as best she can. She’s delighted and grateful at the chance to serve as Miss Peabody’s companion, and the two set out for Egypt. That’s where they meet archaeologist brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Miss Peabody has an interest in ancient ruins, and is well-informed on them, so when the two women stop at the excavation site, they decide to stay on for a bit. That’s how they get drawn into a bizarre case. First, a mummy that the team has found seems to disappear. Then, villagers and other locals report that a mummy has been seen at night. Other strange and disturbing things begin to happen, and it’s now clear that someone wants the Emerson excavation to stop. If the team is to stay alive, and continue the work, they’re going to have to find out the truth. And it turns out that someone has used misdirection to get everyone frightened about the mummy, so that the real motive for what’s going on will stay hidden.

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, who live in San Francisco are on a visit to New York City. By chance, Nick, who is a former PI, is spotted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client. She’s worried because her father, Clyde Wynant, seems to have gone missing. Later, Nick gets a visit from Wynant’s lawyer, who thinks he’s in New York to track Wynant down. That’s not the case, but Nick seems to be getting more and more drawn in to the matter. The next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf, is found dead. Now, Nick’s even more deeply drawn into the case. As it happens, there are several suspects in the murder, any one of whom might be guilty. Misdirection plays an important part in this story as we find out the truth about Wynant’s disappearance and his secretary’s murder.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is saddened when he finds out that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. Jha was at a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when something extraordinary happened. Witnesses say that the goddess Kali appeared, and stabbed Jha. To Kali’s devotees, this makes sense, since Jha was dedicated to science and to debunking people who used religion and spiritualism to deceive people. But Puri doesn’t think Kali really appeared and committed murder. So, he starts to ask questions. And he discovers quite a lot of misdirection as he finds out what really happened.

See what I mean? Misdirection is critical to crime fiction and crime writers. Wait a second – what was that? Look over there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Peters, Elly Griffiths, Nicholas Blake, Tarquin Hall

I Took a Little Risk*

As this is posted, it’s 158 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. As you know, it was a groundbreaking book that still has implications. It contributed to major changes in our thinking about our species, our history, and a lot more.

It was a risky gamble for Darwin, and for the John Murray Company, the book’s publisher. Darwin is, of course, not the only author to take risks with his writing. Plenty of crime fiction authors have, too. Whenever an author breaks new ground with a book, she or her runs the risk of a complete failure, both critically and commercially. But sometimes, those gambles pay off.

Consider, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle. His Sherlock Holmes was arguably the first fictional detective who used the scientific method and scientific processes to solve mysteries. It was a major shift in detection, and there was no guarantee that it would pay off. But it did. Holmes remains one of the most popular characters in fiction history. In fact, fans loved Holmes so much that there was a major public outcry when Doyle tried to end the Holmes stories with The Final Problem. He was more or less forced by public opinion (and the publisher) to bring Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Agatha Christie also took major risks with her writing. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, we are introduced to retired magnate Roger Ackroyd and his household. When he is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes that he is innocent; so, she asks for help from Hercule Poirot, who’s recently retired (or so he thinks) to the same village. Poirot looks closely at other possibilities for the murderer, and finds that virtually every other character is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who the killer is. The solution to this mystery turned many of the detective story conventions on their heads, so to speak. In fact, Christie got quite a lot of criticism for not ‘playing fair.’ And yet, this novel remains one of her most popular releases. And, if you read the story carefully, you see that all of the clues are there.

Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me was also quite risky. In it, we are introduced to Lou Ford, Deputy Sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s well-enough liked in town, if considered a little dull. Certainly, he’s not the kind of person who draws a lot of attention. Then, a prostitute named Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. After that, there’s a murder. Now, everything’s changed, and we learn that Ford is hiding something – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ This is arguably one of the first novels in which we really get to know a serial killer, and get ‘inside that person’s head.’ It was a major gamble for Thompson; in fact, Stephen King has commented on Thompson’s bravery in letting himself see everything and write it down. The novel may not be for everyone, but it broke crime-fictional ground, and changed many people’s thinking about what a crime story could be.

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was also a gamble. It’s often (‘though not always) regarded as the first ‘hardboiled’ PI novel. Even today, people often associate Hammett with that sub-genre. Until that time, most crime novels avoided a lot of violence, and didn’t really look at the seamy side of life. Hammett introduced a different sort of protagonist, and a different sort of perspective, and there was resistance to it. There was also no guarantee that people would take to this sort of story. But, of course, they did. Today, the ‘hardboiled’ story is among the more popular of sub-genres.

Many people argue that Robert B. Parker also changed our thinking about the private-detective story. His Spenser series doesn’t just focus on clues, whodunit, and ‘red herrings.’ Rather, it explores relationships and character development, too, in a way that innovated that sub-genre. And plenty of more recent PIs have been inspired by that innovation to create a new kind of protagonist.

These are by no means the only authors who have taken risks by changing our thinking about what a crime novel could be. I’m sure that you could think of many more than I could. And, if you think about, every author takes a risk. What if people don’t like the direction the novel takes? What if an author who’s had success with one series tries something completely different – and it fails? Fiction writing, like scientific writing, takes a certain amount of courage no matter what one’s topic. And writing that takes our thinking in new directions requires even more courage. Just consider what we might have missed had Darwin not taken the risks he took.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Robert B. Parker

The Pinkertons Pulled Out My Bags*

detective-agenciesPlenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work alone or with just one partner. There are some advantages to that, too, if you think about it. One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility (since the PI can choose which cases to take, what hours to work, and so on). And the lone PI doesn’t have to share the profits with anyone. So, it’s easy to see why a detective might want to go it alone.

It’s not all roses, though, as the saying goes. A lone PI can’t cover as many cases as an agency can. And an agency, complete with a staff, often has more resources, both financial and in terms of people. There’s also the possibility that a client might prefer to work with an agency, rather than just one PI, or a PI partnership. So, quite a number of PIs belong to an agency, at least at first.

One of the most famous of all detective agencies is Pinkerton’s (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency), originally founded in the US by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. It’s still in operation, although it’s now a subsidiary of another firm. Pinkerton’s plays an important role in K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. She’s also an amateur detective. One of her friends (and a former mentor) is Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent. In fact, in Unseemly Haste, Concordia gets involved in one of Penelope’s cases as she travels across the country to visit her aunt. Agencies such as Pinkerton’s were very popular in the days before the FBI and other federal agencies changed the landscape of nationwide criminal investigation.

In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who has cut off all contact with her family. She’s reportedly been mixed up with some very shady people, so Hambleton wants to be sure that she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. He has the agency send a representative to the address she gave – an address that belongs to Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has been seeing. She’s also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the detective finally finds Sue’s own place, it’s too late: she’s dead of arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a case of murder – or perhaps suicide…

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she trained as a private investigator. At first, she worked as a police officer, but two years was enough to show her that police life wasn’t for her. Then, she worked for a detective agency for a short time, while she learned the ropes. After that, as happens with many PIs, she decided to hang out her own shingle. For Kinsey, the independence and flexibility of having her own agency is worth much more than the security that belonging to a larger agency might provide.

In Dick Francis’ Odds Against, we are introduced to Sid Halley. He’s a former jockey whose career was ended when his left hand was severely damaged in a racing accident. Not sure where to go or what to do after that, he got a job at Hunt Radnor Associates, a large detective agency. He worked there for two years until he was shot by a suspect in an investigation. His father-in-law (later ex father-in-law) Charles Roland can see that Halley is floundering, and offers him a way out. He wants Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, a shady businessman who Roland suspects is trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse. Halley agrees, and embarks on a new career as a racetrack investigator.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is the owner of a well-respected Delhi agency, Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Although he’s the head of the agency, he depends crucially on the members of his team. Each of them has special skills and backgrounds that help the agency. There’s Tube Light, his head investigator, who has a special knack with computers. Facecream is a valuable member of the team who can blend in anywhere she goes. She often does undercover work. And there’s Flush, so called because his was the first house in his village to have indoor plumbing. And of course, Puri couldn’t get very far without Handbrake, his driver. Handbrake knows how to blend in with other drivers, street vendors and so on, which helps him get information.

While we often think of PI characters as ‘lone wolves’ – and many are – there are plenty who don’t work alone. Some work with just one partner (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones). Others are slowly building (like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe). But there are lots who work for a bigger agency. It’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re new to the field and don’t have your own reputation yet. Or if you haven’t (yet) got the funds to set up for yourself. Which fictional larger agencies have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Betty Webb, Dashiell Hammett, Dick Francis, K.B. Owen, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall

Where the Gin is Cold, But the Piano’s Hot*

SpeakeasiesFrom 1919 until 1933, the transportation, sale, import and export of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States. But Prohibition certainly didn’t stop people drinking. And it certainly didn’t stop people selling alcohol to those who wanted to drink it.

One sort of place where people went to drink was the speakeasy. Speakeasies were illegal (although in some places, police looked the other way for a ‘consideration’). For a lot of people, that added to their appeal. So did the music and dancing that were often a part of the speakeasy experience. People who wanted to go to speakeasies often needed to have memberships, know a password, or in some other way be ‘vetted.’ It was a way of making sure that the police didn’t raid. So in that sense, speakeasies could be selective places.

If you think about it, the speakeasy atmosphere is tailor-made for a crime novel. All sorts of people frequented speakeasies, many of them not exactly upstanding or law-abiding. Add to that the sometimes-racy entertainment, the alcohol, and the conflicts that could arise in such places, and you’ve got a very effective context for a murder mystery. So it’s little wonder there are lots of speakeasies in crime fiction.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance, begins in a New York City speakeasy. PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, who live in San Francisco, are visiting New York City just before Christmas. Nick’s having a drink at a speakeasy when a woman approaches him. She is Dorothy Wynant, daughter of successful executive Clyde Wynant. She’s concerned because he seems to have gone missing, and she wants Nick to find him. Nick knows Wynant, but he’s reluctant to get involved. Then, Wynant’s attorney persuades Nick that this is a serious matter. And the next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolfe, is found dead. So Nick and Nora start asking questions. To say that they’re not teetotalers is an understatement, so there are several scenes in the novel that take place in speakeasies.

Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which takes place in 1926, tells the story of Joe Coughlin. He’s had a very proper Boston upbringing, but he’s gotten involved in organized crime, and now intends to climb his way to the top. Because it’s during the time of Prohibition, organized crime leaders often get involved in smuggling and delivering alcohol to speakeasies, and Coughlin does his share of that. In fact, the novel begins when Coughlin and a partner hit a gambling room behind a speakeasy that belongs to a rival gang leader. That plays a major role in what happens later in the novel, as Coughlin moves to Florida and gets involved in rum-running and other operations. Among other things, this novel shows the often-close connections between speakeasies and organized crime.

So does Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place mostly in early-1930s Oklahoma. That novel introduces readers to Jack Belmont, who’s always been a kind of ‘wrong ‘un,’ and now has dreams of being an outlaw like Pretty Boy Floyd, only bigger and more powerful. The novel also introduces Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster, a lawman who is determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars. For Belmont, the speakeasy isn’t just a place where you go for a drink, or a source of income. It’s a place where a criminal can lie low for a while if necessary. Webster knows that speakeasies are places to get information about what’s happening in the underworld, so he finds them useful too, in a different way. It’s an interesting look at the way the speakeasy fit into social life at the time.

Of course, not all speakeasies were seedy and ‘low rent.’ There were plenty of speakeasies that catered to wealthier people. We see that, for instance, in Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that novel, we meet Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson, a rum-runner who makes his living selling smuggled alcohol to Hollywood luminaries for their parties, and to the speakeasies that those people frequent. When Hud’s friend and business partner Danny is murdered, Hud decides to find out who’s responsible and have his revenge. And there are several possibilities, too. For one thing, a rival gang has moved in and tried to take over some of the local speakeasies and other criminal operations. They’d be only too happy to have Danny and Hud out of the way. For another, there are the people with whom Danny and Hud do business. Some of those people wouldn’t hesitate to kill if they saw the need. The trail leads through speakeasies, film studios, smugglers’ boats and high-class parties.  

And then there’s Ellen Mansoor Collier’s Jazz Age series. Beginning with Flappers, Flasks, and Foul Play, the series features Galveston society reporter Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Cross. She wants to make her mark as a ‘real’ reporter, but that’s difficult for a woman at that time and in that place. Jazz’ brother Sammy owns a speakeasy called the Oasis, and that’s where Jazz gets her chance at a real story. One night, successful banker Horace Andres suddenly collapses at the club, and later dies. Jazz has the opportunity for a real story, but she’ll have to find out who the killer is without alerting the police to the fact that her brother owns an illegal business.

And that’s the thing about speakeasies. They were illegal. And that meant that all sorts of things might happen there, and the police frequently couldn’t get involved. That’s part of the reason they make such interesting contexts for crime novels. Well, that and the great music of the age.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s All That Jazz.

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Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Ellen Mansoor Collier, Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Stone

The Hotel Detective, He Was Outta Sight*

Hotel DetectivesHave you stayed in any hotels recently? Because of the nature of hotels, all kinds of people may be there, for any number of reasons. Most hotel guests are there temporarily, too. So hotels do need to take security seriously. Many modern hotels address that issue by using CCTV and other surveillance. Some hotels have entire security staffs. That’s especially true in large or upmarket hotels, or hotels in places such as Las Vegas, where guests may be either very vulnerable or sorely tempted.

What I haven’t seen in any hotel I’ve stayed at is a hotel detective. I don’t know if hotels hire such professionals any more. Some certainly may. On the other hand, it may not be as necessary today, given how easy it is to set up a security system. But many hotels used to hire them. It was logical, too, since the police couldn’t really patrol a hotel.

Moira at Clothes in Books suggested I take a look at the hotel detective in crime fiction, and I’m glad she did. It’s a fascinating topic! Almost as fascinating as Moira’s excellent blog, which you really should have on your blog roll if you don’t. It’s a treasure trove of information and commentary on clothes and popular culture in books, and what it all says about us.

Raymond Chandler’s short story I’ll Be Waiting tells the story of Tony Reseck, house detective for the Windermere Hotel. He’s concerned about one particular guest, Eve Cressy, who’s been staying in the hotel for five days without leaving her room. She assures him that she’s all right, and just waiting for someone. Then, Reseck gets a message from his brother Al, who warns him to get Eve out of the hotel right away, as she’s in big trouble. It seems that she was mixed up with a criminal who’s recently been released from San Quentin prison, and is coming back to her. Of course, the relationship is a little more complicated than that, and Reseck finds himself getting mixed up in a drama and having to find a creative way out of it.

Much of the action in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery takes place in the Chancellor Hotel. That’s where Donald Kirk keeps a well-appointed suite of rooms for his publishing business and his rare stamp collection. One day, a strange little man comes to see Kirk. He won’t give his name or his business to Kirk’s assistant James Osborne; instead, he says he’ll wait from Kirk. Osborne settles him in an office Kirk has set up for visitors, promising to let him know when Kirk returns. When Kirk comes back to his office, he and his clerk find to their shock that the visitor’s been murdered. His clothes are on backwards, and the room’s furnishings are backwards, too. Ellery Queen happens to be with Kirk, since the two had meet by chance in the lobby. He immediately takes an interest in the odd case. It’s all made even stranger by the fact that no-one was seen to go in or out of the office. What’s more the door is locked from the inside. This is one of those ‘impossible but not impossible’ cases that Queen fans will know. In this instance, the hotel detective, Brummer, doesn’t solve the case. But he does get involved, and it’s interesting to see how his job is portrayed.

Philip Kerr’s If The Dead Rise Not features his sleuth Bernie Gunther, a former police officer. This story takes place before the events of the Berlin Noir trilogy, and in it, Gunther has taken a job as house detective for the Adlon Hotel. It’s 1934, and the Nazis have taken power. They’re putting their stamp on everything; and, more and more, anyone whose loyalty is called into question is at risk. In fact, Gunther has a run-in with a police detective who questions his commitment to Hitler (in my opinion, Gunther finds a creative way to deal with that!). When he learns that the Nazis are targeting anyone with any kind of Jewish ancestry, he finds himself in trouble, since one of his grandparents was Jewish. As he’s dealing with that problem, he also has two other cases. One is the theft of a Chinese artefact from the room of an American businessman. The other is helping a journalist with her exposé of Hitler’s increasingly harsh treatment of Jews. Through it all, Gunther has to do his best to stay in the face of increasing risk from the Nazis.

There’s also Alan Russell’s novels featuring former surfer-turned hotel detective Am Caulfield, who works at La Jolla’s California Hotel. In The Hotel Detective, he solves several cases, including Carlton Smoltz’ murder of his wife, and the death of contractor Tim Kelly who may or may not have jumped from the balcony of his room. In The Fat Innkeeper, the hotel’s been bought by a Japanese firm, so Caulfield has to deal with his new bosses’ ways of doing things. And then there’s also the poisoning murder of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who was attending a retreat for those who’d had near-death experiences. Kingsbury was committed to debunking mediums, paranormal experts and so on, so no-one’s really surprised at his death. And that means there are several suspects in this case.

And here are a few other tidbits about house detectives that you might not know.  Dashiell Hammett had several jobs in his lifetime besides writing. One of them, for a time, was as a hotel detective. And E. Howard Hunt (yes, he of the Nixon Watergate years) wrote a thriller, House Dick, about a hotel detective. And finally, Stewart Stirling wrote a series featuring house detective Gil Vine. Those books aren’t as easy to find, but they present a more pulp-fiction/noir picture of the job.

So as you can see, even if the hotels you stay don’t have official house detectives, they’re still out there. At least in fiction. I’ll sleep better knowing that next time I’m on the road…

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band.

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Filed under Alan Russell, Dashiell Hammett, E. Howard Hunt, Ellery Queen, Philip Kerr, Raymond Chandler, Stewart Stirling